50 com­ing up, but Hall’s well

Nine news­reader Jo Hall tells Dar­ren Dev­lyn she sees no ev­i­dence of sex­ism in the news­room

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NEWS­READ­ERS, the the­ory goes, must be ca­pa­ble of a de­meanour ap­pro­pri­ate to the task of re­port­ing tragedy, tri­umph and dis­tress.

The best of news­read­ers are per­ceived as re­li­able, cred­i­ble and trust­wor­thy. They project em­pa­thy, re­as­sur­ance and warmth, but are calm in the face of dis­as­ter. They re­sist overt dis­plays of emo­tion.

The stand­ing of a news­reader in a net­work’s hi­er­ar­chy is ev­i­dent when you con­sider net­works spend mil­lions each year on au­di­ence re­search in their des­per­a­tion to as­cer­tain why their news ser­vice, and news­read­ers, ei­ther ap­peal to, or re­pel view­ers.

With few ex­cep­tions in the first four decades of TV, news­read­ers were male— a re­sult of net­works be­liev­ing view­ers saw men as stronger author­ity fig­ures than women.

Jo Hall, He­len Ka­pa­los, Jen­nifer Keyte, Mary Kostakidis, Jen­nifer Hansen and San­dra Sully are on an ex­ten­sive list of women who’ve made their mark over the past 10 years, but there re­main crit­ics who are adamant ram­pant sex­ism and the ageist philoso­phies of TV net­works con­tinue to make it dif­fi­cult for women to en­dure and be taken se­ri­ously at a news or cur­rent-af­fairs desk — par­tic­u­larly as they edge to­wards 50.

Re­porter and news­reader Chris­tine Spi­teri has ac­cused Nine and its news boss John Wes­ta­cott of of­fen­sive and sex­ist be­hav­iour and of breach­ing her con­tract— charges vig­or­ously de­nied by Wes­ta­cott and the net­work. The mat­ter goes back to court on July 18.

The Spi­teri case fol­lows for­mer Chan­nel 10 news­reader Tracey Spicer’s re­cent set­tling of a dis­pute with that net­work re­gard­ing her dis­missal, with Ten deny­ing she was moved on be­cause of her age and fam­ily com­mit­ments.

Ten also parted on poor terms with Hansen. Though Hansen left af­ter a break­down in con­trac­tual ne­go­ti­a­tions, it’s be­lieved the net­work was con­cerned about her hav­ing a high­pro­file so­cial life.

Kim Watkins set­tled af­ter a ma­ter­nity-leave dis­pute with Nine in 2005, and Kostakidis, highly re­garded for her poise as a news­reader, left SBS last Au­gust, in­sist­ing she was forced to present many of the soft sto­ries in a dumbed-down bul­letin.

Jana Wendt, a for­mer Ten news­reader and 60 Min­utes re­porter, re­cently bought into the de­bate about women in news and cur­rent af­fairs, pon­der­ing if fe­male news­read­ers might be re­quired to present ‘‘as porn queens in pin­stripes’’.

Jo Hall, who’s been at Nine for 29 years and read­ing the week­end news bul­letin for the past 10, says she can’t make sense of per­sis­tent ac­cu­sa­tions the net­work has a ‘‘boys’ club’’ men­tal­ity and that women there are treated like ‘‘play things’’. Hall, who turns 50 next Wed­nes­day, be­lieves there’s in­dis­putable ev­i­dence Nine re­spects and nur­tures fe­male tal­ent.

‘‘I think the land­scape has changed, and this idea of women hav­ing a useby date, I don’t think it ex­ists,’’ Hall says of her ex­pe­ri­ences at the net­work.

‘‘Nine has em­braced women as they’ve got­ten older. We have amaz­ing (40-plus) women here such as Liz Hayes, Tracy Grimshaw, Kerri-Anne Ken­ner­ley.

‘‘When I first came here there weren’t that many women in man­age­ment roles so that prob­a­bly gave it a feel­ing of be­ing a boys’ club. But I don’t see much ev­i­dence of it now and I’m not toe­ing some cor­po­rate line and try­ing to be po­lit­i­cally cor­rect by say­ing that. It’s gen­uinely how I feel.

‘‘The boys’ club thing re­lates to a time of long lunches and be­ing in the pub. It’s dif­fer­ent now.’’

Nine’s Melbourne news di­rec­tor Michael Venus speaks force­fully when asked to ad­dress ac­cu­sa­tions the net­work has a poor rep­u­ta­tion when it comes to treat­ment of women in its work­force.

‘‘This (boys’ club la­bel) is crap and an­noy­ing and the per­pet­u­a­tion of a myth that has taken on a life of its own,’’ Venus says.

‘‘The im­por­tance of women in this or­gan­i­sa­tion is sec­ond to none. Jo is a trail­blazer here. Women are such a vi­tal in­gre­di­ent in our suc­cess.

‘‘We have a mini baby boom here at the mo­ment, which is won­der­ful. (Re­porters) Carolyne Ran­doe and Rachael Rollo (are preg­nant) and we’ll work closely with them to en­sure their ex­pe­ri­ence is not lost when they go on leave and work in with them on ros­ter­ing ar­range­ments when they come back.’’

Net­work news­read­ers, male and fe­male, are care­fully groomed. Stylists and wardrobe de­part­ments are charged with the re­spon­si­bil­ity of en­sur­ing their pre­sen­ters ap­pear clean­cut and in­of­fen­sive. A switch­board light­ing up with com­plaints about a news­reader’s wardrobe or hair­style, for ex­am­ple, can be a cause for con­cern be­cause net­works are acutely aware such dis­ap­proval can prompt view­ers to switch chan­nels.

Hall ac­cepts that be­cause TV is a vis­ual medium, you have to ex­pect judg­ment on how you look.

‘‘It may be naive of me, but I think you have to have an ap­peal on some level,’’ she says.

‘‘As far as age is con­cerned, my age has not been rel­e­vant and I haven’t been made to feel it’s rel­e­vant un­til now ( Guide’s in­ter­est in her turn­ing 50).

‘‘I don’t have age is­sues. The one time it has be­come an is­sue is now, though on a pos­i­tive level.’’

Boned, the ti­tle of a novel in­spired by Jes­sica Rowe’s trau­matic exit from Nine, tells the fic­tional story of women try­ing to sur­vive in the Aus­tralian TV in­dus­try.

It adds weight to the the­ory that women in TV face ex­tra­or­di­nary pres­sure to grow old dis­grace­fully — liv­ing a life where you can’t eat for fear of stack­ing on the kilo­grams and where it’s ac­cepted you’ll need bo­tox or cos­metic surgery the mo­ment a fur­row ap­pears in your brow.

HALL feels no such pres­sure, con­fi­dent she can con­tinue to pros­per in her ca­reer on her own terms.

‘‘I’m sure there are some women who feel it nec­es­sary to make changes and it’s fan­tas­tic Kerri-Anne (Ken­nerly) came out and said she did it be­cause she wanted to.

‘‘It’s great if you want to and you feel happy in life. I would hope I’d never feel pres­sured into do­ing some­thing like it. I’m not say­ing I’d never do it, you should never say never, but I wouldn’t ever want to feel like I had to do it.

‘‘Ev­ery­one has spe­cial things about their face that are unique. My fear would be that I wouldn’t look like me any more. I want to look like Jo.

‘‘It is re­ally im­por­tant how you look on TV and that goes for men, too. Peo­ple (on the street) will say things like, ‘You had red on the other night and you looked hor­ri­ble’.

Laugh­ing, Hall adds: ‘‘It’s un­be­liev­able how bru­tal peo­ple can be.’’

Rat­ings, how­ever, sug­gest Hall is not short of fans.

In 2007, Nine’s Sun­day news was the high­est-rat­ing news ser­vice in Melbourne, even though Chan­nel 7 had, and main­tains, AFL cov­er­age as its bul­letin lead-in.

On Sun­days in 2008, Nine has won nine rat­ings weeks and Seven has won seven.

Pic­ture: MANUELA CIFRA Lo­ca­tions: cover— Crown Spa at Crown Tow­ers Ho­tel, South­bank, This page— Bistro Guillaume, South­bank.

No stop­ping Jo: Jo Hall has been at Nine for 29 years and read­ing the week­end news bul­letin for the past 10.

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